How do you choose the food you buy?

9 January 2014
Written July 2013

There seems to have been a sharp rise in the number of products labelled "organic" on supermarket shelves in the past couple of years. Often I am asked if the weekly shopping should include organic fruit, vegetables, meat and chicken, as well as the newer products we're seeing now - butter, cheese, wine and tinned goods. I don't want to advise anyone as to what they should buy. We're all so different, we have different meeds, tastes and incomes and we all know that "organic" comes at a price.

I know I'm lucky to live in Australia and to pinpoint it more closely, in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Not only do we have a beautiful climate and adequate rainfall here to grow a wide variety of backyard food, year-long, we also have a lot of producers' markets and small local markets. Within a short distance of where I live there is an organic supermarket and butcher and a food co-op with a lot of organic produce such as milk, cheese, grains, flour, dried fruit, chocolate, tea and coffee. Just up the road we have a dairy and whenever I drive past on that back road, I see those healthy goats and Guernsey cows roaming freely over rolling hills. It's not organic but it's local and fresh.

So for me, it's not a question of where do I find it? - it's easy to find. The question here is do I buy it?

Like most of us, I didn't really question "organic"when I first came to this way of living. To me then, it was premium and what I wanted to buy. But in the years since, I've thought a lot about what "organic" means and if I should tweak my budget, and go without other things, to buy mainly organic food. 

The answer for me now, is no. When I have a choice, I prefer to buy fresh and local.

The term "organic" means different things in different places. Here in Australia, producers apply for organic certification and then have to undergo a series of inspections and, all things going well, they get their certification and operate according to those standards. There are also producers who say they're organic, and might very well be, but are not certified. I think there is a diverse understanding of the term as well. Some people think that organic produce has been grown without the use of fertilisers and insecticides. But there are a number of "natural" fertilisers and a short list of acceptable insecticides used to grow organic produce. We use pyrethrum spray here - it's made from daisies and it's an acceptable insecticide for organic growers. We think of the fruit and vegetables we grow here as being organic but we use homemade fertilisers, Dipel and pyrethrum. They're all seen as organically acceptable but we don't have to follow any standards, we are simply making what we believe are the right choices to produce our own healthy food.

Now when I think of organic food I think not only of the synthetic chemical means of production but also elements that include social factors and logistics as well. Now it's not a question of whether my tomatoes have been sprayed, it's much more than that. Is food 'organic' if the people producing it are paid next to nothing? Is food still 'organic' is it's been flown from one side of the world - from place of production to place of sale? Shouldn't food miles play a part in what is seen as 'organic'? Can I still consider my food 'organic' if my apples, potatoes, onions, or whatever, have been stored for months in a cold room? I have had a shift in thinking and now I don't just rely on a label to tell me something is organic, I also include my own questions about origin, transportation, means of production and the workers who produced it.

When we buy our food, I think we should not only look at the health component, which takes in whether is was grown organically or not, we should also consider how far it's travelled from point of production to our door, how it's packaged, and where that packaging came from. We should consider the means of production and the workers who produced it. 'Organic' means more than chemicals and price. It also means social justice and sustainability.

We need to think about animals slaughtered for our food. I want the eggs and meat I eat to come from creatures that have lived a decent life. I'd rather never eat those products again if it meant I was supporting and helping to perpetuate cruelty in the form of caged poultry, gestation pens or whatever else.

Crikey, it sounds like I'm trying to complicate buying a bag of potatoes and a pork chop but what I'm hoping to do is to start a conversation about how we choose the food we buy. For me, genuine 'free range', fresh and local is premium now and it outweighs organic from another country, or even another state. I know I'm lucky to live where there is a wide variety of healthy food, in addition to our backyard produce, but that variety and choice brings important decision-making with it. I'd love to know your thoughts on this. Do you question how healthy and ecologically-sound organic produce is? Do you buy it if it's from another country? Have you, like me, replaced "organic" with fresh and local? Do you factor in the problem of animal cruelty or transport and food miles? I look forward to reading your comments.


  1. Hi Rhonda, I love these older posts, for me definitely local and home grown.
    By the way I love your new banner, I just got my daughter to do mine as my computer skills are zilch. I think I will have to practice those this year. Hope you are all well xx

  2. Wow, I love your new banner Rhonda. I might be brave and try and change mine one of these days after doing a backup first of course...just in case. :-) You have been a busy little vegemite. I hope you are enjoying the cooler weather.

  3. Hi there, I agree with Shannon, your new banner looks great! I also like the recycled posts as I only recently found you and the your blog, so I missed out on a fair bit of information. :-)
    The organic discussion is a good one and one I have thought about a lot recently. For me, meat needs to be free-ranged and local. The thought of live animal transport is appalling to me. For fruit and veggies, I much rather buy for someone's non-organic produce out of the same town then buying organic food interstate. But I do experience allergies to some things, eg the wax on the apples. I can only eat non-waxy apples, so I mostly buy those organic. Also when I make things like liverwurst/pate, I prefer to buy organic liver as I'm worried of hormones and antibiotics which might have been fed to the animal. So for me, it's not that black and white but a lot of shades of grey. Interested to hear other opinions. Have a great day!

  4. I like the banner too and it away the first thing I noticed. It's an interesting discussion and I like the local and fresh mantra. Regards Kathy A, Brisbane, Australia

  5. g'day rhonda & hanno, hope you are enjoying your break, love the new banner
    i tend to buy local where possible, organic is rarely an option as its not cheap & alot of the time it's not local either
    hope you all had a good xmas & new year

    selina from kilkivan qld

  6. We only have 3 real food store here. During the summer months we have a farmer market. I shop all three stores. I use the sell flyers to see what the best deals are but I do consider nutrition very much. But right now nothing is growing and local foods are basically impossible do to weather.
    But the department of heath and welfare consider one should be able to feed a person on about $200 a month and that's us dollars.

    Coffee is on

    1. I forgot to mention on my first comment that our eggs are definitely free range - from our own hens! If we didn't have our own, we have a few friends with chooks who we would buy eggs from.

  7. I'm much the same as you Rhonda I'd rather buy fresh and local where possible. There are a number of local groups on facebook where you can go on and barter/swap or even give away your fresh produce. it is a great way of getting to know people in your area and what products are available. Love your banner as well.

  8. I am enjoying your selected, previously written articles. Also like the pictures at top of page. Your writing gets me motivated and thinking good thoughts. Thank you. We are going through strong winter weather here in mid-west United States. So, you get me warmed up.

  9. I love the new banner too. I never get around to changing my blogs; I've always tried to keep them simple and uncluttered for the sake of people that didn't have Broadband, and took ages to download graphics on their computers. That probably doesn't apply to many people these days with new technologies, but I haven't bothered upgrading my blog headings in any case!
    As for organic food, I don't think the organic label means much. I'm sure the producers mean well, but as you said, it's better to buy fresh and local where possible. I buy dairy products at the supermarkets because I don't know anywhere local that I could buy fresh milk, butter and cheese. Same with meat - I buy that at the local butcher, but have no idea where it comes from, although I believe it is all Australian.
    There are plenty of 'farmers markets' selling fruit and vegies within driving distance of where we live, but for the two of us it really isn't worth going any further than our local green grocer, who is very much a local produce supporter, but whether it is organic or not is irrelevant to me.

  10. I buy food pretty much the way you do for the same reasons! We live in an area of beautiful farmland and I want it to stay farmland, so I support the local farmers by buying what they produce. We eat less meat because it's costly, but we're very fond of vegetarian food, too, so it's a good arrangement.

  11. When people say organic....or even more expensive I always have to disagree. In the long run after you cut out all the unhealthy snacks and processed foods (not even food in my opinion) you will be saving money. Real food and local....satisfy the body so much more than commercial store bought....And I would definitely do without any meat if I had to buy it from the store!

  12. Here in Cape Town, South Africa, I find that local and fresh are good standards to focus on. The main place you can find organic labelled produce is at Woolworths, which is generally heavily packaged in plastic and has often traveled far. Although my local farmer's market uses quite a bit of little plastic bags when I go to pick up my produce, I can return them and get to tell them directly what's most important to me in terms of the produce I want to buy (and am willing to pay more for). Being connected directly to smaller producers is such a powerful thing, because while I don't know how to farm (yet), if I know the farmer is thinking long term about the land, that means as much as any label.

  13. I live in northeast Ohio and we have a much shorter growing and harvest season than you do. Recently I had been buying frozen "organic" spinach which tasted very good, but was quite a bit more expensive than other frozen spinach. At the time of our Thanksgiving, in November, I suddenly noticed that the bag said in small letters that it was the product of China. It also has the stamp of the USDA to certify it as organic, but I am really skeptical and will not be buying this again. I think there is no way it can be truly verified that it is organic and I certainly am against transporting it from China to Ohio. But seeing this on the label was a real shock and now I am checking everything to see where it comes from.

  14. I remember this post when it was originally posted because it resonated with me then and still does now. My husband and I believe in raising our beef organically ...but when we looked into being certified , the process was quiet expensive and would have put us financially behind the eight ball. So we decided to just do what we believe and know that what we were producing was ethical and sustainable. Since then we have come across many other food producers that do not have the label , but like you are producing good safe healthy food .
    I think it is good there are so many small farms that really do not use any chemicals etc. , but I think there is an assumption that if you do not have organic cerification then your food is not safe. I like the way you and Hanno get to know your producers such as Maleny Dairy etc. and support local products. I think this is the way of the future. Organic is great ,but local where you can see how the product is raised and grown is even better.Thank you for always showing your support of small local producers.

  15. I totally agree. There are many issues with the food that we buy in major food chain stores. Although, my family lives in an area where there isn't much choice in terms of organic or local produce and where there is we can't afford it. So, I definitely think that major stores like woolworths etc. and just society in general needs to change the way that we deal with food. Especially in terms of transport distances, non-recyclable and excessive packaging, animal treatment and the amount farmers are paid. My family has always dabbled in growing our own food but have recently started gardening more seriously so thanks for your blog! Very thought provoking and useful.


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